The Key to Happiness

By Dr Teria Shantall

Tragic Optimism

Too often, Logotherapy is associated only with the tragic triad of human existence by putting the accent on the suffering of pain, guilt and death. Who of us can say that we will never suffer, make a mistake or fail and will never die? Life is basically tragic, Frankl contended, but why? What is the meaning of suffering? This is where Frankl put the accent! Every tragic and painful event is meant to be turned into a spiritual triumph by finding and realizing its meaning. We are to grow in spiritual grasp through suffering and attain that which we are meant to attain: the bliss of a fully consecrated life. This is the essence, the deepest quest in life, buried in the bosom of every single person. The deepest motivation in the human make‐up, Frankl contended, is the will to meaning. This, after all, is a fact of human existence recorded for us in the Book of books:

“May bliss, my Master, our God, come to us; establish upon us the work of our hands; and the work of our hands, establish it” (Psalm 90:17) We are to “bring home a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12) out of all that our suffering has taught us and challenged us to become. The predestined goal is to bring us into the lasting experience of the supreme meaningfulness of life. “Then we shall exult and be glad all of our days” (Psalm 90:14)

This Psalm illustrates what Frankl meant by tragic optimism. The focus is not on the tragedy but on what inspires optimism!

The Meaning of Life

Is life meant to be just one huge struggle, something essentially miserable or do we reach out to something beyond negativity and despair, something more than just trying to cope with problems and difficulties and to survive, in the best way possible, the many tragic onslaughts that come our way?

Frankl taught that suffering is meant to make us aware of what ought not to be. But, in becoming aware of what ought not to be, we become aware of what ought to be! We become aware of what was and is precious to us, what we do not want to lose and what we are hoping to have or experience in our lives. In short, we want to rid ourselves of that which makes our lives miserable. We want something better, to do something more with our lives. We want to find happiness. We want to experience joy in our lives, to be happy and at peace with ourselves in fulfilling what we believe is our peculiar destiny in life.

We want to be set on our way

“You will make known to me the path of life, the fullness of joys in Your Presence, the delights that are in Your right hand for eternity,” the Psalmist (16:10) stated. What is the will to meaning other than looking for and wanting to experience what is truly good and true and beautiful in life? To find meaning is to realize and treasure the value of love and right living; to experience the triumph of exercising courage and faith throughout every trial and distress with the steadfast and firm conviction that all circumstances work together for the good. It is, as Frankl stated, to have unconditional faith in the unconditional meaningfulness of life.

Are we not all, at heart, seeking to find the key that unlocks this state of unperturbed being, a state that Frankl called a basic trust in being despite the negative and contrary things we suffer and see happen in the world around us? The defiant power of the human spirit, according to Frankl, is exactly this: to refuse to become the victim of misery, to refute what causes it! We can have joy in suffering. What is this joy but the sure faith in a future that lies indestructibly beyond what we suffer or have to battle with right now?

There is a table that is being prepared for us, one in full view of our tormentors (Psalm 23:5‐6). Once seated, our cup overflows with happiness. We realize that goodness and kindness have pursued us all of our lives long and that it has finally overtaken us! Even when we could not see the way forward we had the trust of being looked after. Looking back, we recognize the awesome fact that we were being guided and led, that an invisible Presence accompanied us.

We cannot pursue happiness, Frankl stated. Why? Because happiness pursues us! “For I know the thoughts that I am thinking for you; thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). Our lives are a plotted path which has a wonderful end in view. This is the tension of direction that Frankl spoke about: we are heading somewhere! We know what we are living for. We have a destiny and are steadily giving it shape.

A New Look at Happiness

We need to look at happiness anew as the desired outcome of our struggles to overcome the things in our lives which make us miserable. We are to have this focus in logotherapy. What else did Frankl mean when he said that logotherapy is the most positive therapy of all therapies?

The bliss of a meaningful life is what we are meant to have; nothing less! Our struggles with doubt and despair are the shackles that are meant to be broken; not oppressively suffered throughout all of our miserable lives. Happiness is not something that is to remain fleeting. It is to be secured as a permanent state of being no matter what happens around us or even befalls us. Death, and all that is associated with it, is to be swallowed up in victory. It is to lose its sting. Life, in all its wondrous fullness, is what we must come to embrace!

Happiness ensues as we live life fully in the way it is meant to be lived, Frankl pointed out. Finding the meaning of every moment is the key to happiness. It is to be in the moment, available and ready for whatever life brings across our paths. It is to feel alive in an inspired way. Even the moments of rest, of fun, of quiet contentment or meditation are filled with this stream of delight, the delight of deep meaning. Nothing is ordinary, dull, lifeless, boring or senseless. Joy in living is a daily affair. It is a messianic life, a life redeemed from misery and despair!

Meaningfully involved in our lives, living it, we are fully ourselves. We and our lives are one. What doubt or misery, what gaps in meaning, can therefore separate us from an altogether happy state of being? “I am!” is the shout of victory of those who have found this key to happiness. They seem to be the beautiful exception to the rule. The whole world, by crazy contrast, seems to be running after the effects of living a meaningful life. Everyone seems to know that happiness is out there, somewhere, and they desperately seek it by what Frankl called a will to pleasure and a will to power. But an effect cannot be made a goal, (pleasure as an end in itself and not as the natural consequence of doing or experiencing something supremely meaningful) nor can a means be made an end (power for power’s sake instead of exercising our powers towards a meaningful end). Even knowledge for knowledge’s sake achieves nothing but dry intellectualism without heart and real impact. It impresses but does not change anything. Outside the context of living a meaningful life, both the will to pleasure and also the will to power are out of context, severed from its source and therefore devoid of meaning.

The will to pleasure for pleasure’s sake defeats itself, Frankl contended. Seeking after the effect we only have the effect, nothing more. Effects fade and have to be brought about, forced into being, again and again. It becomes an addiction and a trap. We get sold on pleasure. Seeking security, the pleasure we think wealth can bring us, desiring to be attractive, be as good at something as somebody else is or even trying to be pious or religious and be accepted and respected as “good” (important) people in the community are all strivings that steal our energies and leave us with nothing but the frustration and unhappiness of not achieving these goals or, when somehow achieving it, with the tension to hold onto them. And do these things, attractive as they may seem to us, give us what we really want? We keep on grasping at what keeps on evading us. It was not what we thought it would be. It is delusional. Like a boomerang returns to the hand of the hunter, Frankl wrote, a seeking after pleasure misses its mark. It returns to us empty. It failed to achieve anything meaningful or worthwhile.

Futile too, is the will to power for power’s sake. What happiness is to be found in arrogance, a show of self‐importance and pompous pride? This is but a cover‐up, a sham to hide feelings of vulnerability and shame. It is but an empty feat, an escape from feelings of inferiority and the fear of being found out to be nobody special at all. Trying to impose yourself on others, to steal or run the show is simply to get people to dislike and oppose you. How difficult to maintain a reputation of importance; to live very long with the false expectation that life owes you and has to bend the knee to your ideas of it! Like castles in the air, such a stance, like all autocracies, crumble and fall. Once ousted from power, you discover that what you think you were you were not at all. Power as an end in itself not only corrupts, it self‐destructs!

The fight/flight characteristics of lives that have missed their mark are caught in the clutches of delusion. Pathology is an off‐course distortion of the real thing. Frankl spoke of the Unconscious God in all of us. Outside of coming in touch and in tune with this very essence of our being, life is nothing but total frustration since it is devoid of any lasting meaning. James Hillman, a post‐modern psychoanalyst, described the existential emptiness of our time as: “The dissatisfied frustration of unlived life.”

An Ultimate Way of Being

What then is meaning? What will hold, prove true and lasting? How do we achieve lasting pleasure and release the power we have been given to achieve it? Here are two inspiring descriptions by men of true spiritual stature of the human commission to unlock the door to eternal bliss, the power and joy of a life that retains its meaning forever:

Rabbi Joseph B. Solovetchik: “Man’s task in the world, according to Judaism, is to transform fate into destiny; a passive existence into an active existence; an existence of compulsion, perplexity and muteness into an existence replete with powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring, and imagination.”
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook: “The purely righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; they do not complain of heresy, but increase faith; they do not complain of ignorance, but increase wisdom.”

What makes us human is that we have a freedom of will, Frankl contested. This freedom has a reason. It is not a freedom that runs amok, something we do not quite know what to do with. Freedom is given to us for a good purpose. Our freedom has meaning. A vivid description of the very nature of our freedom is given in these words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:

“May all that which is blissful and which can be obtained only through You be given us. May it come over us. May it be destined for us. This supreme bliss which has been decreed by God for Israel is stated in these terms: ‘Establish the work of our hands upon us.’ Make us independent, so that we alone may dispose over the work of our hands and not be beholden to any man; make us free. Establish what it is that we must do; prescribe for us what path our conduct should take; give us Your Law. Freedom and Law, to be slave to no man, but God’s servant through and through, these constitute Israel’s blissful destiny” (commentary on Psalm 90, The Hirsch Tehillim — Psalms).

Human freedom is a freedom to be responsible, Frankl insisted. We must exercise it as a freedom from a helpless entanglement with states of victimization on the lower and non‐spiritual (unfree) levels of being. We are not meant to be driven by physical lusts or emotional needs nor are we meant to be determined by a power struggle for survival. Our freedom as humans is a freedom from these animalistic levels of being. We are to emerge from such a sub‐ human state of living into what gives us true human stature, namely, exercising our freedom as a freedom to achieve the state of being we are intended to have. “Man is spirit,” Frankl stated. We have been created to be spiritually attuned to what transforms our lives into something that has eternal significance. We have the power to bring heaven down to earth if we but will it!

Coming to his senses after years of drug abuse and destructive ways of living, a student of logotherapy remarked: “I looked at myself and my world through the veil of my misperceptions!” That veil is to be lifted and it is lifted in a way described by another student: “Good makes evil look evil and evil makes good look good!”

Why focus on the negative, the one tree of the deceptive promises in our garden of Eden when there is a forest of trees bearing the real fruit of happiness of a fully meaningful life fully there for us to enjoy? (See Genesis 2:16,17) There is a Tree of Life in the very midst of our garden, planted in the very essence of our being, and to eat from that tree is to live forever!

The Fruits of Meaningful Living

Let us contemplate the manifold fruits of a meaningful life as different facets of joy and happiness, a zeal for living which we sadly keep on denying ourselves by not living up to what we are meant to be.

A sense of fulfillment; deep contentment and gratitude. Peace, harmony, a sense of surrender. Faith, hope, positivity. The vitality and inspiration of the tension of direction. Self‐actualization through meaning. A good conscience: “I like myself!” A sense of self‐worth through responsibility. Self‐respect, dignity. Honest living: a self‐transparency, guiltlessness with nothing to hide: “he who walks in the way of perfect innocence” (Psalm 101:6). Openness, receptivity. Spontaneity, joy, a sense of fun, humor. Flexibility in being in the flow of things. Availability, always ready for anything holding out meaning. Heightened awareness and appreciation. Patience, tolerance, forbearance. Readiness to forgive, empathy and understanding. Compassion, care, love. Gentleness, sensitivity, tactfulness. A desire to serve, mean something to others. Commitment, zeal, involvement. Clarity of vision. Discernment, focus, decisiveness. Firm conviction, courage, a fearless stand for the good. The ability to say a firm “No!” to what is wrong or deceptive. The ability to refute lies, expose deceit and hypocrisy. A passion for good and a pure hatred of hatred! The power to rebuke and judge: “The lofty praises of God are in their throats, and a double‐edged sword is in their hand — to execute vengeance among the nations, rebukes among the governments… to execute upon them written judgment — that will be the splendor all His devout ones. Hallelujah!” (Psalm 149:6‐9). Sharp intelligence, a deep and profound grasp. Wholeness (pleasure and power in true perspective!) Unblemished holiness (godliness, supreme humaneness). Feeling intact, in touch, in total unity. The joy and bliss of worship!

Why on earth then do we put so much emphasis on the negatives in life? What are we doing to ourselves? Are we martyrs on the stake of misery? Who are we serving, good or evil, life or death, blessing or cursing? We are to choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19)! Abraham Maslow made the provocative statement that it was good for us to have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It allowed us to become fully informed of both, making our choices for the good the only sensible thing to do! Let us gain true perspective: All that evil and suffering can do is to highlight and illuminate and sharpen our awareness of what should (and through the evoked defiant power of the human spirit), can and therefore must and will be. Pain, guilt and death (the tragic triad of human existence) simply wake us up, call us out of a state of apathy and mindlessness and invigorate us with a desire to overcome suffering by proving evil as wrong, as not part of the picture. The commissioned achievement of joy eliminates and removes from our lives every last vestige of the misery of partaking in what ought not to be!

Where then should we direct our focus; surely to what is essentially ours, to what always awaits and is in store for us if we but reach out to find and enjoy it?